Beau Brummell courtesy of Tweedland, the Gentleman’s Club
What did Beau Brummell, Lord Byron, Oscar Wilde and Balzac’s Henri de Marsay all have in common? They were “metrosexual” before the 20th century. They were “hipsters” before Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Studio 54 and the sub-culture explosions during the last half of the 20th century. A traditional dandy was basically a dude who took care of his physical appearance meticulously and with intention. He set fashion trends with his abandonment of the wig and powder, and his more subtle yet careful appearance, which led to what we consider classic menswear.
Grooming, dressing and accessorizing paired with a taste for intellectualism, leisure and a stoic self-assurance was the era’s attempt at what we now consider being “cool”. Often, the dandy aimed to infiltrate the upper class, typically having been born into a middle-class family. Being an artist or poet, like Charles Pierre Baudelaire, and boasting an aristocratic dress sense helped break down social barriers. However, some individuals—usually those whose positions of power they threatened to acquire or diminish—accused the dandy of self-worship, purposeless vanity or building a religion of aesthetic hedonism. For Oscar Wilde and Lord Byron, who would have served as the subjects of gossip rags today, dandy status required an audience, laying the groundwork for modern celebrities.
Can a suit subvert?
Was there something revolutionary, or at least rebellious, about the rise of the dandy? Here was a society of bloodline aristocrats and bourgeois—whose main identifier was their activities and the way they looked—that was suddenly being threatened by well-dressed, self-made, middle-class individuals armed with art, literature, philosophy and dangerous politics. French Revolution dandies who hung out in bohemian quarters were celebrated for being pre-punk, social radicals who broke traditional boundaries designed by the bourgeois. They exuded contempt for high society by imitating their dress code without having inherited it. The rock stars of the late 1800s were dandy poets whose subversive lyrics had incredible social impact.
Being a dandy can come in handy, especially if you have a political agenda. What would happen if protesters showed up in a suit and tie, as opposed to cargo pants and slogan tees. The police would be confused and politicians would lose the most obvious thing separating them from those at the bottom of the power ladder. Certainly, there are a many reason that people want nothing to do with—never mind mimic—those in power, but if your aim is to influence others and communicate with the mainstream, it helps to put your message in a handsome package.
Looking good and kicking ass is stuff of myth, but James Bond doesn’t own the idea. So put on a tie and go save the world. And also check out the amazing and hilarious Yes Men—modern day dandies who use the suit to subvert.
Brooklyn-based Joshua Katcher is the editor of The Discerning Brute.
Sean Connery as James Bond in Dr. No. Image courtesy of Groucho Reviews.